Beyond the offline-online binary – why women need a new global social contract

13 December 2016

Original artwork by Flavia Fascendini

The non-territorial, transborder Internet has overlaid layers of complexity to the human rights debate. The idea of substantive equality – a compass for human rights and the key to gender justice – must be interpreted anew as the force of digital technologies complicates the temporal-spatial nature of social relations and institutions.

Gender politics and unfreedoms of the digital economy

The structures of the digital economy are a good place to start, for unpacking the nature of change. The celebrated ‘sharing economy’ has become a powerful myth that eclipses narratives of who owns and controls the digital market place. It is difficult to imagine a women’s cooperative being able to afford the brokerage charges of a powerful e-commerce platform such as Amazon. Even if it was, the surplus value generated by its participation in the digital marketplace would accrue disproportionately to Amazon, a rentier class monopoly of the new age. The increasing uberization of domestic work performed overwhelmingly by women presents new challenges for women’s work participation. As the labour market goes online, work becomes short term and ends up bringing less economic security, predictability, and capability to organise.

Not only production, but also social space, is engulfed by the monopoly platforms of network society, as social interactions get subsumed within neo-liberal logic. The many identity options to choose from on Facebook or Tinder are part of digital capitalism’s singular interest in targetted advertising.

Meanwhile, mining and rare earth production for sustaining the material infrastructure of digital capitalism wreaks havoc on the ecological systems in the global South, decimating Third World women’s sources of livelihood and sustenance. In the Castellsian space of flows, a new international division of labour is evident – advanced information economies transfer care work burdens to female migrant workers from poorer countries, who join global care chains that isolate, alienate and exploit. The meteoric expansion of the transnational circuits of legacy human trafficking business (the UN identifies 510 such traffic flows between origin and destination countries) has meant the recruitment of children in abject poverty for ‘virtual sex’.

A new international division of labour is evident – advanced information economies transfer care work burdens to female migrant workers from poorer countries, who join global care chains that isolate, alienate and exploit. The meteoric expansion of the transnational circuits of legacy human trafficking business (the UN identifies 510 such traffic flows between origin and destination countries) has meant the recruitment of children in abject poverty for ‘virtual sex’.

As Federici observes, the current economic model characterised by the destruction of subsistence economies, deterritorialisation of capital and disinvestment by the state in public services has a crippling effect on Third World women’s lives.

Big data and loss of autonomy

Economic hegemony in the digital age accrues from control over data as means of control over social behaviour. User consent becomes a mockery, as individuals have no way of controlling the use and re-use of their data. Even when intimate information, such as regarding menstruation, is tracked, App developers don’t see such dataveillance as a problem. Proposed trade agreements (such as WTO e-commerce proposals, TISA and TPP) that push for unrestricted cross-border data flows are likely to accelerate the data problem. These agreements do away with data localisation laws that require citizen-data collected by TNCs to be stored only on local data servers, thus ousting the possibility of national level redress for privacy violations by transnational corporations (TNCs).

Today, mega corporations like Monsanto control vast amounts of agricultural input data, such as on soil, seeds, fertilizers etc., through which they dictate farm-based decisions in the global South. Governments in developing countries engage private entities for big data analytics, transferring development related decision making to the market. The truths of women in the peripheries may not even be represented in the data. Given the lack of appropriate privacy and data protection laws in most countries of the South, we see a crisis of democratic accountability, a situation where women’s bodily integrity, agency and autonomy are under siege.

The truths of women in the peripheries may not even be represented in the data. Given the lack of appropriate privacy and data protection laws in most countries of the South, we see a crisis of democratic accountability, a situation where women’s bodily integrity, agency and autonomy are under siege.

The paradoxes of open knowledge structures

The smokescreen of free participation in the so called open knowledge commons obscures the rapid marketisation of the internet. It bespeaks a new imperialism. According to one estimation, indigenous people must spend upwards of US$1,000,000 to have their own Internet Domain Name to identity them as a sovereign nation or culture. Similarly, single country oversight of critical internet resources implies that any legal contestation around the Domain Name System can happen only in US courts. The militant regimes of intellectual property – from copyright legislation to technological controls such as digital rights management systems and pay-walls – reveal the aggressive, proprietizing tactics of the powerful in the information society to lock up knowledge, making it highly inaccessible.

Studies from the Oxford Internet Institute have found that 84% of Wikipedia articles focus on Europe and North America. Most articles written about the global South are still written by those in the global North. Only 20% of the world (primarily white male editors from North America and Europe) edits 80% of Wikipedia currently. Navigating their way in knowledge systems has never been so difficult for the majority of women. Digital disenfranchisement is ruthless; it comprises not only the material reality of the digital divide, but the gendered reality of sexism and misogyny in the public sphere. Emerging cartographies of knowledge thus follow the traditional faultlines of gender, intersecting unequivocally with class, race, sexuality, caste, ethnicity and geography.

From digital unfreedoms to substantive equality for women

Economic, social and cultural (ESC) unfreedoms are the de facto reality, a central fact of women’s everyday lives in every region of the world. The pace and velocity of informational capitalism and a violent illegibility of its modus operandi of exploitation undermine women’s ESC rights. Discourses of the ‘gender digital divide’ and ‘empowerment through ICTs’, untethered from their structural, political economy content, deflect from the reality of deep seated institutional change. Such reification of technology, treating something social as a purely material artefact with pre-inscribed characteristics and independent from social practices and ideologies, misrepresents what is actually a fluid sociological paradigm.

Discourses of the ‘gender digital divide’ and ‘empowerment through ICTs’, untethered from their structural, political economy content, deflect from the reality of deep seated institutional change. Such reification of technology, treating something social as a purely material artefact with pre-inscribed characteristics and independent from social practices and ideologies, misrepresents what is actually a fluid sociological paradigm.

Substantive equality implies that in order for women to enjoy equality, the lived reality of discrimination, inequality and injustice must be acknowledged, understood and addressed. The Committee on ESC rights and the CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women) Committee have clarified in recent times the extra-territorial obligations of states parties. Yet, from a feminist standpoint, the ESC rights need to be clarified much more. How macroeconomic policy, global trade, taxation, the intellectual property regime and activities of TNCs impinge upon women’s rights to economic literacy, financial autonomy, access to the natural commons and land rights, access to knowledge, participation in markets, engagement with public policy processes etc., are all critical themes for women’s substantive equality under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). These issues must be filtered through the prism of a digitally mediated reality marked by platform monopolies, dataveillance, technology-mediated violence and more – where women are the data they may not want to be.

What may then be done within the current framework?

The Committee on ESC rights can play an important role in clarifying how access to the Internet is a foundational requirement for women’s access to information, especially on basic entitlements as equal citizens. The Committee can also play an important role in interpreting substantive equality in relation to the SDGs – especially in relation to women’s ICT access (Goal 5), interpreting and spelling out what comprises empowering access for women (that includes structural issues), and what state parties obligations are in provisioning such access. The Maatricht principles also present an opportunity to expand upon the application of extraterritorial obligations under ICESCR, for pinning down the transnational implications of the non-territorial internet. The Committee must also develop an alignment on standards with the CEDAW Committee and the United Nations Human Rights Committee that deals with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), especially to examine the ideas of privacy and consent commensurate with digitally-mediated life.

In June 2014, the Human Rights Council adopted resolution 26/9 on the elaboration of an International legally binding instrument on transnational corporations and other business enterprises with respect to human rights. There is a need for the UN to engage women’s rights groups in discussions on the particular impact of digital corporations on gender equality to bring a check on the run-away power of TNCs into the substance of such a binding treaty.

At the national level, digital rights and entitlements must be operationalized into direct benefits that are enforceable. This must include Internet provisioning based on a public goods and public interest approach, special measures targetted at women – subsidised public access, minimum data allowance, public interest content, training on digital citizenship skills etc., community owned infrastructure licensing for women’s groups, and the regulatory and redressal mechanisms to make the ‘right to access’ justiciable. National laws must recognise intersectional disadvantage and address the structural reasons for marginalisation of rural women, women with disability, gender minorities and other groups. In provisioning access to the internet as a right, law and policy must tackle the architecture and layers of the internet itself (through net neutrality policy, for instance), failing which, digital rights may well end up assimilating women into the very folds of the neo-liberal network paradigm.

National laws must recognise intersectional disadvantage and address the structural reasons for marginalisation of rural women, women with disability, gender minorities and other groups. In provisioning access to the internet as a right, law and policy must tackle the architecture and layers of the internet itself (through net neutrality policy, for instance), failing which, digital rights may well end up assimilating women into the very folds of the neo-liberal network paradigm.

A new treaty for the internet, the feminist way

In respect of digital technologies and women’s civil and political rights, a vital and evolving body of work is emergent, especially on technology mediated violence and women’s online participation. Free speech advocates among feminists, however, often find themselves on the same side as Northern governments, the internet technical community and corporations, who are blatantly unsympathetic to political economy issues in the information society. The idea of a people-centric and development oriented information society invoked by the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) exhorts a deeper and holistic engagement with ‘all’ human rights. But the post-WSIS moment has been one where mainstream gender justice activism has failed to capture and mobilise around an idea of substantive equality that underlines the indivisibility and interdependence of human rights. The libertarian ideologies espoused by the many actors who are present at global policy forums also dislodges from the discussions uneasy questions of informational capitalism and the deleterious impacts on women of the loss of the ‘public’ in the marketisation of everything.

The post-WSIS moment has been one where mainstream gender justice activism has failed to capture and mobilise around an idea of substantive equality that underlines the indivisibility and interdependence of human rights. The libertarian ideologies espoused by the many actors who are present at global policy forums also dislodges from the discussions uneasy questions of informational capitalism and the deleterious impacts on women of the loss of the ‘public’ in the marketisation of everything.

This brings us to a key point. The thesis that “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online” – a resolution affirmed by consensus in the UN Human Rights Council – tends to promote an artificial binary. It constructs the world in two parts, as if there is a distinct and bounded online space, separate from the offline. What we see however, is that violations of ESC rights occur in the hybrid contexts of embodied and embedded techno-mediated life, in the unfreedoms wrought by digitalisation, data and networks.

These unfreedoms urge a closer look at what rights are about. Rights are indeed performative, but they are also relational and historicised. The claim to rights arises through spatially and temporally located disadvantage, material and ideological. The Internet, as a neo-imperialist handmaiden, is increasingly unfree and closed today. Connectivity seems to have cannibalised sociality. It has intertwined with the structures of gender based oppression. It has rendered old norms meaningless and simultaneously destabilised norm development processes and institutions. Which is why, the big masters of the information society are busy getting down to brass tacks and proceeding to build afresh norms and institutions that are self-serving.

The doublespeak here is stark. Richer countries and their corporations would like to ride the connectivity miracle, pushing for an ‘open Internet’ as a vehicle of growth. They prefer to adopt policy principles based on an insider consensus. These standards – however progressive on some counts – enforce unfair economic terms on poorer countries (for instance, the OECD Internet principles emphasise strict IPR enforcement). Moving towards robust policies and rule of law within their territories, these elite groups prescribe “a flexible, multi-stakeholder approach to Internet policy making, rather than an international regulatory approach”. This rhetoric of flexibility and openness begs the question – For whom, and towards what?

Multilateralism – with nation states driving consensus to the lowest common denominator– may indeed be inimical to the original internet’s dream and its future. But from the standpoint of the poorest and most marginalised person, there is no alternative to democracy and the rule of law. It is hence that the democratic development of global principles for Internet governance at the international level – entailing the participation of diverse civil society groups – becomes important. And this is why feminists must pause and examine dialogic modes in the closely watched and indeed controlled spaces, as in the IGF. These run the risk of reproducing the status quo and ceding ground to retrograde forces, if they do not abide by deliberative democracy and democratic rule making that takes due account of the relative resources and power of the affected parties.

Post modernism prefers to talk endlessly about racism without races and feminism without women. In the perverse conflation of interests we see in internet activism, the moment has arrived for feminists to demonstrate that the means are indeed about transformative politics and clarify that the ends they seek can reclaim the material and ideological structures of society – internet and all.

A key principle of substantive equality is attention to the dissonance between those who speak and those who are affected. The policy parable of the internet suggests a subterfuge; if feminism gets coopted into its politics of recognition, it is bound to ignore the politics of responsibility. As Rosi Braidoti says, post modernism prefers to talk endlessly about racism without races and feminism without women. In the perverse conflation of interests we see in internet activism, the moment has arrived for feminists to demonstrate that the means are indeed about transformative politics and clarify that the ends they seek can reclaim the material and ideological structures of society – internet and all.

The ESC rights of women needs to be articulated through a new global social contract befitting an emergent digitally networked society. A step in this direction is the development of a global governance framework, with a new treaty for the internet, that acknowledges and remedies the disadvantage and discrimination women and gender minorities suffer in the current paradigm, galloping as it is, towards ‘rule by data’.

A requiem for responsible feminism

The task for feminist counterpublics remains. The ideology of win-win multistakeholderism has corroded principled, informed and vigilant feminism in the political battles of the internet.

The erosion of publicness in societies around the world has triggered a global resistance – something that water activist Tommaso Fattori, calls the struggle for the ‘commonsification’ of the state. Feminist ICT activism must join this network of people, across the world, striving for a different economy, society and polity, seeking to reclaim water, knowledge, health, food, energy, forests and land. A new frontier of action is necessary – given that not only space but also the body and human cognition are being reconfigured; from we, the people, to things, of the Internet.

A new frontier of action is necessary – given that not only space but also the body and human cognition are being reconfigured; from we, the people, to things, of the Internet.
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